SpaceX has been awarded a $150 million contract to launch the U.S. Department of Defense’s first batch of hypersonic missile defense satellites. This is the second such contract that SpaceX has been awarded, and is worth roughly the same amount as the contract for their development.
SpaceX and Florida-based defense firm L3Harris Technologies are competing and collaborating on the project, which is designed for the rapid development of a globe-circling network with dozens of satellites.
Lockheed Martin and Denver-based satellite firm York Space Systems are also building spacecraft for the network.
“It’s a response to the evolving hypersonic abilities from Russia and China and others potentially,” said George Nacouzi, a senior engineer at the Rand Corporation, a non-profit think tank for the defense industry. “The project is focused on launching a demonstration mission now, but I don’t know if they’ll build the whole system as intended.”
SpaceX and L3Harris each are building four missile detection satellites for the first launch, expected in 2022. Lockheed and York are developing communication satellites that would relay signals about a hypersonic missile’s location and potential path. Although competitors, the firms are required to collaborate on ensuring the satellites work together.
“Speed is essential because such a weapon could travel halfway around the world in less than an hour,” Nacouzi said.
While SpaceX usually doesn’t comment on such projects, L3Harris executive Bill Gattle said the company has prepared for years to develop large numbers of spacecraft for hypersonic missile defense. “The company has adapted infrared sensors used in its weather detection satellites for the new spacecraft, which will be part of the United States’ new planned National Defense Space Architecture,” said Gattle, who is president of L3Harris’ space systems business.
“The whole industry is moving from the days of building a few satellites at a time to building hundreds of them,” Gattle said, referring to constellations of hundreds of satellites launched by SpaceX and similar plans by OneWeb and Amazon.
“We’ve recognized that we have to become more efficient, and we’ve already built hundreds of payloads for satellites,” Gattle said. He said the satellite system, coordinated by the defense department’s new Space Development Agency, has revolutionized space and defense contracting by moving faster than ever on such a large government project.
The agency was founded in 2019 to ensure rapid response to new threats, said Jennifer Elzea, chief of strategic engagement for the agency. “It is SDA’s desire to create a market rather than a set of programs, so all prospective performers can build capabilities” and bid on future projects, Elzea said.
Eventually, the SDA’s hypersonic detection system would have up to 150 satellites in space.